Friday, December 29, 2017

The limits of expertise

Great article from Farnam Street":
The Generalized Specialist: How Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and Kepler Excelled

Understanding and staying within their circle of competence is even more important for specialists. A specialist who is outside of their circle of competence and doesn’t know it is incredibly dangerous.

Philip Tetlock performed an 18-year study to look at the quality of expert predictions. Could people who are considered specialists in a particular area forecast the future with greater accuracy than a generalist? Tetlock tracked 284 experts from a range of disciplines, recording the outcomes of 28,000 predictions.

The results were stark: predictions coming from generalist thinkers were more accurate. Experts who stuck to their specialized areas and ignored interdisciplinary knowledge faired worse. The specialists tended to be more confident in their erroneous predictions than the generalists. The specialists made definite assertions — which we know from probability theory to be a bad idea. It seems that generalists have an edge when it comes to Bayesian updating, recognizing probability distributions, and long-termism.
As Tetlock’s research shows, for us to understand how the world works, it’s not enough to home in on one tiny area for decades. We need to pull ideas from everywhere, remaining open to having our minds changed, always looking for disconfirming evidence. Joseph Tussman put it this way: “If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”


Half-blind experts and the straw men they create

The Hive mind revisited

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:8-14

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Victorians at their best

Mark Pattison's name calls to mind a whole lost world of Victorian learning. Its locale ranged widely in character and location: from the great domed reading rooms of the British Museum, lined with its hundreds of calf-bound books, to James Murray's Scriptorium. lined with its thousands of paper slips bearing quotations. But its inhabitants were more uniform: the bald, bearded, energetic men of letters who founded literary societies, created workingmen's colleges, taught young women to row, edited arcane texts, and wrote essays for the common reader more learned than most of what appears in modern scholarly journals. We still batten upon the rich fruits of their industry: The New English Dictionary, the Dictionary of National Biography, and the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Anthony Grafton, World Made of Words


We’d be better off if we were a little more Victorian

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The state of the war colleges

This episode of midrats looks at the current state of our various war colleges. Well worth a listen.
Episode 411: Making a Better War College 11/19 by Midrats | Military Podcasts:
What is the best way to hone the intellectual edge of the officers who will lead our Navy? How do we gather our best minds and ideas together to best prepare our Navy for the next war? How is our constellation of war colleges structured, how did it get to where it is today, and how do we modernize it to meet todays challenges? We've put together a small panel for today's show to address this and related issues.

Dr. James Holmes makes an interesting point about strategy: "Strategy is about forming good habits." Critically, in this he includes both "habits of mind" AND "habits of action." Clausewitz would probably agree. Business professor Michael Porter might not.

Waiting for our Clausewitz


Educating military leaders

“Wargaming in the Classroom”

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Wrong turn on the way to utopia

An impassioned and astute piece by Nicholas Carr

The world wide cage

Technology promised to set us free. Instead it has trained us to withdraw from the world into distraction and dependency.
I couldn't help but think of G.K. Chesterton when I read this:

What Silicon Valley sells and we buy is not transcendence but withdrawal. We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us.
Over a century ago GKC was warning against this temptation in Heretics:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique....The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell.
[Modern man] says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; he he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active. he is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals-- of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself
On a side note, I had not heard of "innocent fraud" before but it is a useful concept.

Late in his life, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term ‘innocent fraud’. He used it to describe a lie or a half-truth that, because it suits the needs or views of those in power, is presented as fact. After much repetition, the fiction becomes common wisdom. ‘It is innocent because most who employ it are without conscious guilt,’ Galbraith wrote in 1999. ‘It is fraud because it is quietly in the service of special interest.’ The idea of the computer network as an engine of liberation is an innocent fraud.

In some way, the modern MSM, with its obsession with Narratives and hot takes, exists primarily to create and perpetuate innocent frauds.


Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Well worth a listen

Podcast: A Look Inside The Mind Of Donald Trump And His Life's Philosophy:

Author Christopher Bedford explores the many sides of Donald Trump and what we can learn about his approach to business and politics.

Friday, October 13, 2017

How Jimmy Kimmel became the Moral Arbiter of the Nation

“Democrats are becoming the party of the celebrity sockpuppet.”

Polarization as a business model

This is an astute piece by Robert Tracinski:

Why Late Night Hosts Like Jimmy Kimmel Are Suddenly So Political
He ends up challenging the assumptions and explanations of both the Acela corridor and the #MAGA legions:

Maybe viewership is declining because late-night talk show hosts have become more political (and less funny). Or maybe the hosts are getting more political because their viewership is declining.

What were once cultural institutions with a broad, bipartisan audience are becoming niche players with a narrow fan base. They no longer view partisan politics as a dangerous move that will shrink their audience. Instead, they’re using partisan politics as a lure to secure the loyalty of their audience, or what is left of it. Not that it’s going to work over the long term, because people who want to have their biases confirmed will just watch the five-minute YouTube clip Chris Cillizza links to the next day.
It all makes sense as a short-term strategy. How long it can work really depends on the viewers and advertisers. We know viewers are going away so it is really just a question of milking the late night gig for as much as possible before it all goes away.

How long will advertisers keep chasing those shrinking left-wing audiences?

On one hand, this remains true:

MSM: Shrinking Audience, Leftward Drift

Media companies have an additional layer of insulation. Their advertising revenue is based on more factors than the absolute size of the audience. As long as broadcast networks are larger than their competition, they can command a premium CPM. They remain the only game in town for advertisers who want to make a big splash. In addition, it is easy to cook up justifications and rationalizations about the elite nature of their audience, their higher spending in key categories, their role as influencers. (CNN has been successful doing this versus Fox.)

Much of this is poppycock and will not stand up to scrutiny. But here is the rub: liberal advertising types in Manhattan or San Francisco see no reason to scrutinize them. For one thing, it plays to their ego. ("People like me are more important than the masses who eat at Crackerbarrel and live in places like Stoughton, Wisconsin.") Second, they are not spending their money.
I wonder, however, if advertisers will stick with Kimmel and Colbert as they go hard left. The hosts have explicitly chosen a side in the Cold Civil War. Do advertisers really want to join them?

Colbert can appeal to SJWs by mocking Deplorables and conservatives. His targets can do nothing except not watch him. His business model does not depend on the largest possible audience merely the largest audience in a highly fragmented landscape. So the Colbert-SJW lovefest goes on.


The business model runs on advertising revenue and that means big brands. Big brands that want big market shares. How many of those marketers want to start out by alienating 40-60% of their potential customers.

For Kimmel or Colbert a 4% market share is a cause for celebration. That same market share would mark the end of the world for Pepsi and Budweiser.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

We owe Salem an apology

The worst argument in the world is a date.
GK Chesterton
Congregants of the Church of the Current Year have an intense if solipsistic relationship with the past:

New: Good
Newest (me!): Best of all

As is usually the case with narcissistic faiths, profound knowingness crowds out real knowledge.

Take, for instance, our self-congratulatory “understanding” of Puritan Salem and the witch trials of 1692. Old Salem is silly and backward and believes in witch’s spells. The subtext, of course, is that we are smart and sophisticated and have nothing to learn from anyone who was never on Instagram.

The facts are much less flattering to the evangelists of the Current Year. Compared to the rest of the Western world, Puritan New England was relatively free of demon-haunted worldview which which marked the 17th century in Europe.

Jesse Walker:

English America was less witch-obsessed than England, and England in turn was less witch-obsessed that Scotland or the Continent. From 1623 to 1631, the German bishopric of Wurzburg burned an estimated nine hundred people for their ostensible dealings with demons. If that body count is accurate, one tiny principality killed more supposed Satanists in an eight-year period than were executed in all of New England in the entire seventeenth century.
Cotton Mather, who supported the witch trials and the punishment of those found guilty, was also an early advocate of vaccination against small pox. When it came to Science, he was more cutting edge than Bill Nye can every hope to be.

A key point by Walker:

In Salem, spectral evidence became admissible in court; the boundary between the waking world and the land of dreams broke down. Again, we are not as different from those backward Puritans as we like to think. The court in Salem unknowingly brought the dream world into their proceedings.
We do it explicitly (“Recovered Memory”) and deluded people call it Science.

We usually tell only half the story of the witch trials. We get the hysteria, the testimony about specters that tormented their victims in the night, the guilty verdicts rendered with no physical evidence presented.

Walker reminds us that there was a Act Two:

In 1697, Massachusetts recognized a day of repentance for the prosecution of innocent people. One magistrate anounced that he accepted 'the blame and shame' for his role in the affair, and a dozen Salem jurors signed a formal declaration of regret
Once you know the whole story of Salem AND remember our own recent history, you realize the Current Year should hang its head in shame.

After all, we, too, had our hysteria-fueled public trials. Just as in Salem the name of Satan figured prominently. Innocent people were punished in the complete absence of physical evidence of their guilt.

In the aftermath of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic we had no “day of repentance”. The prosecutors, investigators, and judges did not accept responsibility let alone “blame and shame.” Some, like Martha Coakley of Massachusetts persisted in their persecution of the innocent for decades.


They trusted the experts

Friday, October 06, 2017

Understanding the fall of South Vietnam

I ran across this from the great Jerry Pournelle:

The anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the consequent death of about a million people who thought the United States would protect them. The end of American credibility: not only did Kennedy allow the assassination of the man who invited his help, but when Viet Nam was invaded by three army corps with armor and other weapons from Russia, the Democratic majority Congress abandoned our allies, and we had the shameful scene of pushing helicopters off the deck of a carrier to make room for more.

Viet Nam was not a civil war. The insurgent movement was defeated. Then in 1972 the North sent down 150,000 men with as much armor as the Wehrmacht sent into France, The Army of the Republic of Viet Nam – ARVN – with US air and materiel support destroyed the enemy. Fewer than 50,000 returned north. US casualties were under a thousand, in a battle larger than most in World War II. It was no civil war; it was an invasion from the North; and it was defeated by ARVN, with little US ground support and few American casualties. It was victory.

Of course we do not celebrate victory in Viet Nam.

When the North built a new army and sent it south, the Democrats of the Congress denied all air support, and voted materiel support of twenty (20) cartridges and two (2) hand grenades per ARVN soldier. Accordingly and predictably Saigon fell and the War ended with a North Viet Nam victory. Executions, reeducation camps, boat people and other refugees accordingly followed; and the dominoes fell in the killing fields of Cambodia.

The Democratic Party does not celebrate this victory, but it is all theirs; and the myth that the USA was defeated by Viet Cong guerrillas grows and grows.

And the one certain lesson of the fall of Saigon is that you cannot trust the United States to defend you no matter how much blood and treasure has been spent, or how little will be needed: US politics trump any national commitment. It was not always so.

Let's hope this new book helps dispel the myth of the victorious VC guerrilla.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

A much needed book

From the publisher description:

The defeat of South Vietnam was arguably America’s worst foreign policy disaster of the 20th Century. Yet a complete understanding of the endgame—from the 27 January 1973 signing of the Paris Peace Accords to South Vietnam’s surrender on 30 April 1975—has eluded us.

Ultimately, whatever errors occurred on the American and South Vietnamese side, the simple fact remains that the country was conquered by a North Vietnamese military invasion despite written pledges by Hanoi’s leadership against such action. Hanoi’s momentous choice to destroy the Paris Peace Accords and militarily end the war sent a generation of South Vietnamese into exile, and exacerbated a societal trauma in America over our long Vietnam involvement that reverberates to this day. How that transpired deserves deeper scrutiny.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Thought for the day

Health is ruined by the systematic duplicity forced on people if you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune.

Boris Pasternak
Dr. Zhivago

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

That vision thing

Strategy, vision, and leadership

What CEOs Get Wrong About Vision and How to Get It Right

When a leader must implement a new strategy, especially one that requires new systems, processes, and perhaps people, it is the start of a new era. Success requires more than the right combination of capital and technology; it also requires a critical mass of employees to adopt new behaviors and ways of thinking. But too often, CEOs and boards in these situations think through the capital and technology issues much more carefully than those involving behavior and attitudes. That imbalance is a primary reason new strategies fail.
All too often, when organizations start crafting “vision statements” it is a bureaucratic exercise undertaken grudgingly and with little commitment. The resulting product looks as if the Underpants Gnomes were lead consultants on the project.

1. Our current poor performance is unsustainable.
2. Vision!!! Strategy!! Leadership!
3. World class performance and rivers of profit!
As is always the case with the Underpants Gnomes, Step 2 needs a little fleshing out.

A while back Inc. magazine asked executives at six hundred companies to estimate the percentage of their workforce who could name the company’s top three priorities. The executives predicted that 64 percent would be able to name them. When Inc. then asked employees to name the priorities, only 2 percent could do so. This is not the exception but the rule. Leaders are inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do, when in fact they don’t. This is why it’s necessary to drastically overcommunicate priorities.
The Culture Code
Daniel Coyle
Field Marshall William Slim was one of the great commanders of World War Two. He took over a demoralized, defeated army that had known only defeat--Singapore, Malaya, Burma. In two years he had transformed it. In the reconquest of Burma, his Fourteenth Army inflicted the greatest defeat the Imperial Japanese Army suffered during the war.

His methods were not the stuff of soaring vision statements or Napoleonic bluster.

Training could inspire confidence, but not motivation. From past experience, Slim learned that the best approach was the most simple and direct -- to talk to as many troops as he could, man to man, cutting through the traditional barriers of military hierarchy. It was also the most time-consuming. Slim reckoned that this exercise took up a third of his time.
Churchill’s Generals
Slim also recognized that transformation must begin with small steps and small victories. That was the only way to restore confidence and gain the trust of the men in the ranks.

When it came to putting theory into practice, Slim took things steadily and carefully. Failure at this stage would have been psychologically disastrous, and his initial limited attacks, often deploying entire brigades against single Japanese companies, were designed to ensure success.
One sees the same idea at work in the leadership style of FM Bernard Montgomery.

Although he was fond of emphasizing that morale was the most important single factor in war, he knew that morale could not be maintained unless everyone from the top to the bottom was confident they could succeed. For that, the strategy, the 'masterplan', had to be sound, the tactics adapted to the circumstances and the soldiers thoroughly trained to implement them.
In contrast, there is no better example of the dangers of lofty, unconstrained vision than the Nivelle offensive in 1917. It provoked mutinies in the French Army and brought the Allies to the brink of defeat.


Smart talk on strategy

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable (Part Two)

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable (Part Three)

Waiting for our Clausewitz

Clausewitz (Part Two)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Peloponnesian War or politics in the Age of Twitter?

An even more striking example of Thucydides’s concern with the corruption of language was found in his description of the uprising in Corcyra, which resulted in a bloody civil war between the democrats and the oligarchs. As he described the breakdown of social order, he also described the corruption of language. Recklessness became courage, prudence became cowardice, moderation became unmanly, an ability to see all sides of a question became an incapacity to act, while violence became manly and plotting self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was to be trusted and those who opposed them suspect.
Lawrence Freedman
Strategy: A History

Monday, September 18, 2017

Coalition strategy and strategic fantasies

The first requirement for a student of Allied grand strategy in World War Two is a high tolerance for boredom. Anglo-American strategy was not the stuff of Napoleonic genius translated into instant military action. Instead, strategic decision-making was a matter of memoranda. Memos setting out each partner’s proposed strategy. Memos responding to those memos. Memos preparing for conferences. Memos memorializing the decisions reached at those conferences.

It makes for dry and often tedious reading. Yet this memo-laden process (Eisenhower called it a “trans-Atlantic essay contest”) was vital to forging the war-winning strategy of the Allies.

The contrast with the Axis is stark. Despite all the bumps along the way, the allies were making joint strategy: all the memo-writing led to decisions that bound both the US and Great Britain. The Axis resolutely refused to do anything like this.

This article illustrates just how disconnected the Axis powers were as they fought a global coalition.

The Italian Navy and Japan: Strategy and Hopes, 1937-1942

The Japanese advances in the Southeast Asia and the fall of Singapore produced a sort of ‘cascade effect’ also on the Axis naval position: Rome (and Berlin) at least perceived this. The Italian Navy was increasingly confident that now the Tripartite could launch a global assault on the enemy sea-lanes. The Japanese guarantees fueled Italian expectations that establishing a naval contact with the Axis via the Indian Ocean was a priority. In April 1942, the raid of the Japanese Fleet against Ceylon seemed to anticipate further projection in the area, while the Japanese dismissed the British occupation of the naval base of Diego Suarez in Madagascar in May 1942 as unimportant. The Italians envisaged the possibility to send the largest number of their submarines in the Indian Ocean to attack enemy shipping that was resupplying British forces in the Middle East, but the proposal was rejected.

At this point, practical cooperation would have needed a political instrument to work. The only suitable seats were the Military Commissions. However, in March 1942, the three powers agreed that ‘[T]he commissions’ activity must […] act only at the margins of the political and military conduct of the war’. Even the exchange of information and intelligence not worked. Supermarina had to follow the official bulletin of the Imperial General Headquarters to obtain details of Japanese naval losses: this explains why the Japanese defeat at Midway never appears in the Italian reports.

During summer 1942, the stalemate at El-Alamein and the possibility that British 8th Army might mount a counteroffensive made it urgent for the Axis to attack the enemy supply lines. At the end of August, Abe personally assured Mussolini that submarines were intensifying operations in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, between August and November, the Submarine Squadron 8 was dispatched in the Western Indian Ocean, sinking 60,000 tonnes of ships. The Italians and the Germans proposed again to send their submarines to cooperate with the Japanese, asking for the necessary logistical support. Tokyo refused, arguing that Japanese units had to operate alone to avoid incidents with the Axis units.

Friday, September 15, 2017

A little dash of Chesterton

Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which your are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. ... It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal and that you are a paralytic.
As I Was Saying

Smart talk on strategy

How Nelson Did It

One of the most interesting commentators on strategy is Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (2011). The book opens with a brief account of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s naval victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, when the British fleet consisting of 27 ships defeated the combined forces of the French and Spanish, which numbered 33 ships. Nelson won the day by adopting an unconventional strategy. Flouting the naval convention of the time, he divided his smaller fleet into two columns and sailed them perpendicularly into the enemy fleet to cut the Franco-Spanish line.

Nelson knew that his lead ships would be vulnerable to Franco-Spanish guns until they could close on the opposing fleet. He gambled that the less well-trained enemy gunners would not be able to capitalize on their advantage. He was proved right. The French and Spanish canons were not able to compensate for the heavy swell and missed their opportunity to sink the British ships while they could not return fire. Once the battle was joined, the superiority of the British seamanship was decisive. The French and Spanish lost 22 ships. The British lost none. This, as Rumelt points out, is an example of a good strategy.

“Nelson’s challenge was that he was outnumbered. His strategy was to risk his lead ships in order to break the coherence of his enemy’s fleet. With coherence lost, he judged, the more experienced English captains would come out on top in the ensuing melee. Good strategy almost always looks this simple and obvious and does not take a thick deck of PowerPoint slides to explain. It does not pop out of some “strategic management” tool, matrix, chart, triangle, or fill-in-the-blanks scheme. Instead, a talented leader identifies the one or two critical issues in the situation—the pivot points that can multiply the effectiveness of effort—and then focuses and concentrates action and resources on them."
This is obviously true. So obvious that it seems almost self-evident. Yet, the empirical evidence is also clear -- most large organizations do not have clear strategies as Richard Rumelt defines the term.

Large bureaucracies do not have strategies, they produce shopping lists.
Zbigniew Brzezinski
Rumelt offers several reasons why this is so:

Bad strategy flourishes because it floats above analysis, logic, and choice, held aloft by the hope that one can avoid dealing with these tricky fundamentals and the difficulties of mastering them.

A primer on strategy

Waiting for our Clausewitz

Clausewitz (II)

Thought for the day

There was and is a strong tendency among Marxists to accept pseudoscience. The mechanism seems to be related to the desire for complete solutions -- which are, of course, more commonly found in the pseudosciences than in the sciences proper
Robert Conquest

Friday, September 01, 2017

The Hive mind revisited

I-Y-Is strike again

Every theory has a political agenda

Elite panic and elite power

A few years back I blogged about G. K. Chesterton’s shattering insight that progressives like H.G. Wells and G. B. Shaw hated humanity as it was and wished (dreamed?) of remaking mankind so that we were more like insects.

The birth of the hive mind
This Wellsian heresy persists even to this day. It has crippled our economy (thanks Tim Cook), it fuels media narratives and pop history, and it creates “elite panic.”

It even helped Hitler gobble up much of Europe. Really.

Yet this particular “paranoid style” is seldom discussed.

No surprise. This form of mass hysteria is not populist; it haunts the imagination of the Intellectual-Yet-Idiot.

We have all heard about Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” in October 1938. The conventional narrative highlights the mass panic than ensued due to the gullibility of the American public.

Lazy journalists still trot it out when they need to write an easy story about the dangers of mass hysteria.

It does not seem to matter that the whole narrative is bogus.

‘Digital wildfires’ and the ‘War of the Worlds’ media myth
Jesse Walker is quite good on this point:

The 'War of the Worlds' story is usually told as a parable about popular hysteria -- a sudden spike in the sort of fear that Hofstadter's essay decried. But at least as much, it is a parable about elite hysteria -- of the antipopulist anxiety that Hofstadter's essay exemplifies. No history of American paranoia can be complete unless it includes the latter.
The United States of Paranoia
Two years before the radio broadcast another H.G. Wells work was turned into a movie. “Things to Come” begins with a new European war and the terror bombing of London. The bombing causes a collapse of civilization and a “barbarous struggle for survival.”

The movie-makers, like Wells himself, shared the key assumption of early air-power theorists: bombing the home front would so disrupt daily life that a nation would be forced to surrender or face a total collapse.

This was one of the key fears that drove support appeasement in Britian in the 1930s. “The bomber would always get through” and the bombing would cause mass panic and a total breakdown of order.

One would think that the events of the summer and fall of 1940 would have decisively refuted this elite hysteria.

Six weeks that saved the world

The forgotten man who saved the world
But as Saul Bellow said “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”

Stephen Ambrose:

Conspiracy theories about past events usually carry with them a political agenda
And let’s not kid ourselves—elite hysteria may look ridiculous, but elite paranoia serves a useful purpose for modern mandarins and the Intellectuals-Yet-Idiots who populate that class. Paranoids are great at spotting problems and “looming crises”. These then inevitably provide a pretext for the mandarins to acquire more power.

Elite paranoia goes hand in hand with elite control.

Which is something Chesterton understood a century ago.

We are always ready to make a saint or a prophet of the educated man who goes into cottages to give a little kindly advice to the uneducated. But the mediaeval idea of a saint or a prophet was something quite different. The mediaeval saint or prophet was an uneducated man who walked into grand houses to give a little kindly advice to the educated

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


When the chips are down, America is still more Frank Capra than Mad Max.

Monday, August 28, 2017

“I’m gonna try to save some lives”

The public response to the disaster in Houston is inspiring but not surprising.
We’ve seen it before:

1940: A season of miracles: Dunkirk

"I never want to say the word 'I should have'"

Cajun Navy
Jesse Walker:

"In real world disasters, as we noted in chapter 3, genuine panic is rare and spontaneous social cooperation is the norm."
The United States of Paranoia
Rebecca Solnit has some interesting insights into why the MSM is so often surprised by the public’s performance when the chips are down. (HT: Schneir on Security)

The term “elite panic” was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disasterCharles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarkeproceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.

Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don’t become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surfacethat was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn’t actually happen; it’s tragic.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

This can't be said often enough

Gawker Is Dead And Deserved To Die

Gawker was a vile website dedicated to the destruction of human beings, especially those its founder, Nick Denton, disliked.
Gawker was a site built to destroy lives. Its mission was to discover the worst moment in a person’s life, and then publicize it for profit.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Why is thinking a lost art in large organizations?

From the Sloan Management Review:

The Lost Art of Thinking in Large Organizations

Many executives in big companies attained their positions by excelling at getting things done. Unfortunately, a bias for doing rather than thinking can leave these executives ill-equipped for their new roles.

If you ask managers in a large organization to approach a strategic business problem, their focus often quickly narrows to proposing solutions. When asked why, many respond that they don’t have time to think.

How did we arrive in a state where managers do not recognize that thinking is part of their job? The answer reflects a relentless focus on execution in many large companies. A company becomes big by finding a successful business model and then scaling it massively. This necessitates building a finely tuned system with highly standardized processes. To get promoted in such an environment requires an almost singular focus on execution. In other words, it requires action more than thinking. However, once executives are promoted to a senior level, these new business leaders must be able to think strategically. Ironically, the very skills in execution that led to their promotions often make these executives ill-equipped for their new roles, since their strategy thinking muscles have withered from disuse.
Question One:

Is the “no time to think problem” connected to the Hurry Up And Wait” problem?

I suspect the answer is “Yes”.

HUAW: Think of it as a symptom of deeper problems
Question Two:

Would organizations recover the “lost art of thinking” if they paid more attention to von Manstein’s insight into officer selection?

When hard work doesn't pay


The Best Strategic Planning Advice Ever

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Thucydides trap and the Korean conundrum

This is an outstanding episode of Federalist Radio. Ben Domenech interviews Graham Allison about his new book. From there the conversation ranges to China, Korea, and the limits of expertise.

Can Lessons From Thucydides Keep America From War With China?
A couple of follow-on points:

1. Allison notes that regime change in Korea may seem necessary, but also warns that our experience of Iraq and Libya also shows that the aftermath of regime-change is never pretty and never a cake-walk.

Left unmentioned was the direct link between the fall of Gaddafi and Kim Jong Un’s drive to secure a nuclear capability. Jerry Pournelle warned that the Obama/Clinton adventure in North Africa would have serious consequences:

North Korea: Jerry Pournelle can say 'I told you so'

One lesson to be learned is, DO NOT LOSE if you are in the dictator business. The US will borrow money to furnish the Brits, French, and Italians with the means to kill you. Understand that, and be sure that you have the means for defending yourself. The more strategic your country the more important it will be to have defenses including personal defenses. Another lesson is, do not renounce your nukes. Get some. Get at least one and let it be known that it will detonate if you don’t talk to it at daily intervals.

Kim Jong Un grasped the Realpolitik lesson of the Melian Dialogue. The immediate cause of Gaddafi’s downfall was not his brutality but his weakness.

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
2. To the Chinese, a ‘solution’ to the Korean crisis looks much different than it does to Washington.

This may be an example of Dr. David Lai’s point that “different nations play different games” which in turn means they view the world from different geo-strategic perspectives.

A nation of Go players cannot help but notice that “dealing with Kim Jong Un” also looks a lot like “encircle the Chinese homeland.”

[See also Beyond Chess and Checkers]
Even if that is not the intention of US foreign policy, we must understands that China will still look with suspicion on such moves.

3. We also have to recognize that our post-Cold War foreign policy has given China ample reason to suspect that such encirclement is the real goal. It is, after all, what we did to Russia despite our promises that we would do no such thing.

The first 30 minutes of this lecture provides a solid overview of the missteps and broken promises that marked US-Russian relations in the Clinton-Bush years.

It really does not matter if the US was reckless, feckless, naïve or Machiavellian. What matters is that our past actions shape how other nations perceive our current initiatives.

4. We also must recognize that China may value Kim Jong Un as a cat’s paw. During the tensest days of the Cold War Khrushchev explained the real value of Berlin to Moscow: “Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”

It is quite possible that China sees Kim in the same light. His provocations are an ideal way to hobble and distract the US in the Western Pacific.

5. Allison has some smart things to say about the limits of expertise in dealing with knotty foreign polity issues. Let us say that he is not in the Tom Nichols “shut up and obey” camp.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Diseconomies of scale and the US failure in Iraq

Bigger ain't always better

The high cost of efficiency

When we look back at what went wrong in Iraq, it is hard to ignore the myriad mistakes made by Paul Bremer and his merry band of modern nation builders.

This talk by Col. Peter Mansoor from 2009 offers and incisive analysis.

One key point he makes is that Bremer centralized reconstruction spending and took it out of the hands of the military commanders on the ground.

While that may have seemed like a great way to maximize efficiency, it had the opposite effect. Instead of flowing directly into the local economy, the money ended up going to multi-national companies and foreign contractors. This helped pave the way for the insurgency and the rise of ISIS.


Diseconomies of scale

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

People this brave deserve to be remembered

First posted 1 August 2008

On 1 August 1944 the Polish Home Army launched a uprising in Warsaw against the German occupiers. They had few weapons but possessed an abundance of courage. The time was right: the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw and Allied armies were advancing against the Germans in France. Wehrmacht officers had nearly killed Hitler on 20 July. It seemed that end of the Nazi state was at hand,

Moscow radio had even broadcast a call to arms to the Poles on 29 July.

In the first days, the uprising had success. The Home Army gained control of central Warsaw. Then they were betrayed by their allies and their allies ally.

The Red Army took no steps to aid the Poles. They even refused to allow British and American planes to use Soviet airfields in airlift and bombing operations. Churchill and Roosevelt had no military options and only a few diplomatic ones. Churchill wanted to put pressure on Stalin but FDR refused. The Warsaw Uprising was a potential embarrassment to a man running for his fourth term. He had already acquiesced to Stalin’s plans for Poland but dared not admit it for fear of losing the votes of Polish-Americans and other Catholics. The Uprising threatened to make Poland an issue in his last campaign.

Many in the West believed the Uprising was hopeless and tragic from the very beginning. The Home Army disagreed. They sent this message to London on 24 August:

Hello.. here is the heart of Poland! Hear Warsaw speaking!
Throw the dirges out of your broadcasts;
Our spirit is strong it will support even you!
We don’t need your applause!
We demand ammunition!!!

They did not get their ammunition but still the Poles fought on. They held out for 63 days-- fighting house to house and hand to hand against tanks and professional soldiers while under continuous bombardment from artillery and the Luftwaffe. Over 200,000 Poles died. It was the equivalent of a 9/11 a day for over two months.

Just before the end, Warsaw radio broadcast a searing message:

This is the stark truth. We were treated worse than Hitler’s satellites, worse than Italy, Rumania, Finland. May God Who is just, pass judgment on the terrible injustice suffered by the Polish nation, and may He punish accordingly all those who are guilty.

Your heroes are the soldiers whose only weapons against tanks, planes, and guns were their revolvers and bottles filled with petrol. Your heroes are the women who tended the wounded and carried messages under fire, who cooked in bombed and ruined cellars to feed children and adults, and who soothed and comforted the dying. Your heroes are the children who went on quietly playing among the smoldering ruins. These are the people of Warsaw.

Immortal is the nation that can muster such universal heroism. For those who have died have conquered, and those who live on will fight on, will conquer and again bear witness that Poland lives when the Poles live

It is a sad fact that the only party to behave honorably toward the Home Army was the Wehrmacht. After 63 days the Poles were still fighting though they had no hope of success. They agreed to surrender to the regular army on the condition that they be treated as POWs. Those terms were granted and, amazingly, the Germans upheld their end of the bargain.

Friday, July 28, 2017

“Wargaming in the Classroom”

On 22 July, the US Army War College hosted a panel discussion on “Wargaming in the Classroom”. It was a terrific event which packed a lot of info and insight into 2 ½ hours.

In his introductory remarks, Samuel White, Deputy Director of the Center for Strategic Leadership at the AWC noted that the mission of the AWC is to “to develop leaders and ideas.” In his view, and that of the panelists, wargaming is a tool that can do both.

I. "Innovative Employment of of Wargames in PME”

The first speaker was Dr. James Lacey of the Marine War College.

His talk can be seen as an update of this article from 2016:

A key point he made at the outset of his talk was that his classes were not gaming classes. They are military history and strategic studies seminars. Thus, his heavy reliance on wargames are a radical departure from the norm.
The benefits he saw from using wargames:
1. “Games are remembered nearly forever.” (The audience of experienced gamers heartily agreed with this point.) Students keep thinking about the issues and decisions for days and weeks after they play.

2. Games generate a large volume of decisions to make and ponder. “Every turn creates new strategic problems to solve.”

3. War college students now think and write in Powerpoint. Traditional writing assignments no longer are the best method to build understanding through in-depth analysis.

Wargames are a way to fill that gap.

4. “Wargames provide mental models” which students can use in the future to interpret new information, problems, and challenges. For example, The Civil War battle of Chancellorsville shares many characteristics with maneuver warfare battles in Iraq or hypothetical battles against Russia in Estonia or Poland.
II “Wargames and International Relations”

Dr. David Lai, AWC Strategic Studies Institute.

He brought an intriguing perspective to the proceedings. His cross-cultural survey and “meta” approach gave me a lot to think about.

A. “All games have their origins in human conflict”

Not just wargames. Sports and “entertainment” games (poker, bridge) share the same starting point.

B. “Games become part of culture and culture effects thinking.”

For example, Americans play poker, and US diplomacy reflects aspects of that game. “Bluffing” (intimidation), playing the cards you are dealt in each crisis, etc..

C. “Nations play games, but different nations play different games.”

1. Thus, while the US may think of poker when dealing with China, the Chinese play Go, not poker.

2. Go is a game requiring long-range, subtle strategies.

3. The “playing board” looks completely different for each player because different games/ different strategic culture.

III “Wargaming in the classroom”

Dr. Peter Perla CNA. Author of The Art of the Wargame.

A. For military organizations the key leadership challenge is “how to develop mental ‘muscle memory’” before officers go to war.

1. It is only through such “muscle memory” that leaders can make better decisions faster under the strain of battle
B. How wargames work:

1. They entertain
2. They engage
3. They enlighten

C. Why wargames work:

1. Players engage, not just observe. Active, not passive learning.
2. They must act and then live with the consequences of their actions.
3. It is a game yet when playing it becomes ‘real’ on some mental level.
4. Wargames present a special type of narrative. Players “live the stories” while playing. Higher engagement than reading history or listening to a lecture.

D. One of the most important things to learn for wargames: “What we ‘know’ that just ‘ain’t’ so.”

Wargames can strip away illusions and false assumptions.

E. For the US Navy in the interwar period (1919-1941) wargaming was the main driver for innovation.

1. It also promoted tighter integration between the various functions in the service.

2. The navy also benefitted because students learned three critical skills from wargaming:

a. How to self-critique
b. How to offer honest and useful criticism to others.
c. How to accept honest criticism.

F. Done right, wargaming helps both students and organizations learn.

He closed emphatically: “Wargaming saves lives.” Therefore gaming needs to start early in an officers professional career.

IV “Teaching wargame design at the Army Command and General Staff College”

Dr. James Sterrett, USA CGSC

A. Wargame design is both an art and a science.

B. He warned against perfectionism in the design stage by quoting French poet Paul Vallery: “A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned.”

C. What is critical is not the initial design, but testing. At the classes on game design at CGSC, half the course time is now devoted to testing.

D. Dr. Sterrett agreed with Dr. Perla that officers should be introduced to wargaming as early as possible, preferably when they are still cadets.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Worth pondering

Every herd is a refuge for giftlessness, whether it’s a faith in Soloviev, or Kant, or Marx. Only the solitary seek the truth
Boris Pasternak
Doctor Zhivago